Newsom speaks out against Brown’s higher education budget

Shannon Hamilton/Staff

Over the past weeks, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has become increasingly critical of Gov. Jerry Brown’s handling of the state’s higher education budget.

Newsom — who sits on the UC Board of Regents and the California State University Board of Trustees — spoke out against Brown’s higher education budget in a radio interview earlier this month. And in a letter to a state committee Friday, he objected to certain higher education cuts proposed by Brown.

“It’s been disastrous,” Newsom said in an interview with The Daily Californian on Thursday.

However, he has yet to specify how he would balance funding for higher education, months after he was expected to present concrete funding solutions to the state legislature.

In the Friday letter addressed to the chair and vice chair of the joint legislative budget committee, Newsom took particular issue with Brown’s proposed eligibility changes to the Cal Grant program and the proposed elimination of two loan programs.

He said he found the proposed changes “galling,” writing that they were “shortsighted.”

“The current proposal threatens to further handicap students already fighting social and economic disadvantages,” he wrote. “Denying Cal Grant benefits will place an undue burden on students, making it more difficult for them to afford an education while trying to change their circumstances by completing a college degree.”

Under Brown’s proposed budget, the GPA requirements for applicants to the Cal Grant program would increase, thereby cutting off about a third of new grant award recipients.

The two loan programs — the State Nursing Assumption Program of Loans for Education Nursing Faculty and the Assumption Program of Loans for Education — would also be ended under Brown’s proposed budget. In these programs, the state makes loan payments for eligible students receiving federal loans who work in certain professions.

The proposed changes to the grants and the termination of the loan programs are expected to help close the state’s $9.2 billion deficit by reducing state expenditures by about $308 million.

Additionally, Brown’s plan would cut $200 million from both the University of California and California State University if voters reject his tax initiative, which would temporarily raise the income tax on wealthy individuals and the state sales tax.

“I understand the need to produce a balanced budget, but I think we can find the resources elsewhere so that we can avoid these cuts,” Newsom said in the interview. “There’s ways of finding resources, there’s ways of redirecting dollars and looking at revenue streams and being creative to find and offset the money.”

In early September, Newsom convened a working group on the future of higher education dedicated to seeking out those resources in order to design funding solutions for the state’s higher education system.

Comprised of senior officials including UC President Mark Yudof, California Faculty Association President Lillian Taiz as well as UC Berkeley senior Jeremy Pilaar, Newsom’s working group was going to do something “dramatic,” he said at a panel discussion at a Silicon Valley Leadership Group conference shortly after the group’s inception.

“Yeah, nothing worse than politicians’ announcing a working group. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, today I announce a task force,’ you know, and nothing ever gets done. So I don’t want to be one of those,” he said at the discussion.

In November, Newsom was expected to present the group’s recommendations to the legislature, according to a press release from his office.

But after meeting only once, Newsom’s group did not meet that deadline.

“Nothing really happened,” said Alice Sunshine, spokesperson for the faculty association, about the only meeting of Newsom’s group.

While the group has yet to schedule its second official meeting, Newsom said he has been meeting independently with group members to discuss how to move forward.

Moreover, Pilaar said he remains enthusiastic that the group will produce recommendations in the longer term.

“I was very positively surprised by the dynamic of the room; the discussion was extremely cordial and was extremely forward-thinking,” Pilaar said of the first meeting.

Even as the group’s progress has stalled, Newsom said he remains committed to fighting for higher education.

“When I had budgets every single year people said, ‘you gotta cut across the board.’ I never did,” Newsom said of his experience as mayor of San Francisco. “There are some things I valued in my budgets despite multihundred-million dollar budget deficits. So higher education is something I disproportionately value.”

Gil Duran, spokesperson for Brown, said to the Los Angeles Times that Newsom was taking the wrong approach.

“Bigger deficits are not the answer,” Duran said to the Times. “That kind of thinking is what got us into this mess.”

Curan Mehra covers higher education.